SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a drop off in ridership and concerns over the spread of COVID-19, bus, TRAX and FrontRunner services will soon be less frequent, Utah Transit Authority officials said.
The decision was made during a special board of trustees meeting Friday morning, according to UTA spokesman Carl Arky.
The changes will go into effect beginning April 5. They include:
- Most bus routes where buses ran every 15 minutes will now run every 30 minutes, and UVX routes will move from 6 minutes to 15 minutes. Other routes that don’t typically run buses every 15 minutes may be suspended or have routes altered; UTA officials didn’t specify Friday which routes will be suspended beginning April 5.
- TRAX light rail trains will run every 30 minutes instead of every 15 minutes on weekdays. They will also run every 30 minutes on weekends instead of every 20 minutes.
- FrontRunner trains will run every hour instead of every 30 minutes on weekdays. Saturday service remains the same. UTA doesn’t run FrontRunner trains on Sundays.
April 5 was when UTA was already planning to have route and schedule adjustments go into effect. The changes announced Friday replace other route plans the agency had announced that were to begin that day. They are also temporary, but the timetable for how long the altered frequencies will last isn’t clear.
“It's fluid,” Arky explained. “It could be 30 days; it will more likely be 60 days. It could be 90 days. The board has the right and the flexibility to reassess the situation when they feel it's necessary. And we have people who are monitoring this on a minute to minute basis every day. … so they're watching the numbers very carefully very closely.”
Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus began, UTA has seen a decrease in public transit ridership as many Utah businesses have either temporarily closed or switched to work-from-home models. Utahns have also been encouraged to stay at home as much as possible and many events in the state have been canceled.
The public transit agency reports a 56% dropoff in bus ridership, a 60% decrease in TRAX ridership, and a 75% skid in FrontRunner ridership over the past few weeks. Decreased public transit ridership has also been reported in other parts of the nation, Arky added.
Friday’s announcement comes more than a week after UTA officials said they would continue to run regular services as long as possible throughout the pandemic.
"UTA provides a vital service to the community. Many people depend on us to get where they need to go," UTA executive director Carolyn Gonot said during a press conference on March 17. "Events and social gatherings might be canceled but people still need to get to work, to social services and to visit loved ones. While we’re taking multiple precautions to protect riders and our employees, we continue to hear comments from people who need our service."
Some bus routes were suspended at that time, as well. The agency has also adopted a new practice of riders entering from the rear door of buses as a safety precaution.
The upcoming changes also come after a COVID-19-related incident earlier this week. On Tuesday, transit police had to scramble to remove a TRAX rider who had boarded the train after leaving a coronavirus testing tent at University Hospital. The train car he was on was immediately removed from service and disinfected. It wasn’t clear if that incident factored into Friday's decision.
As for the decrease in ridership, Arky said that the federal government mandates that UTA is “fiscally responsible and we operate in a fiscally-responsible way.” Scaling back service reduces some of the day-to-day costs.
While ridership is significantly down, he added that there are still enough riders and a need for services to keep operations running.
“There's still a significant portion of the population that still views mass transit as essential,” Arky said. “It might be for them to either get to a doctor's appointment that may or may not be related to COVID-19, to get to a job that they are still doing or to get through a family member who is sick and needs some help — things of that nature.”
In addition to public safety and service reduction, UTA officials say they are working to ensure their employees are safe. So far the agency’s 2,500 or so employees are still on the job and it hasn't dealt with workers not showing up to keep operating its fleet of trains and vehicles.
When asked if service cutbacks could lead to temporary unemployment or furloughs, Arky said the agency hasn’t “even crossed that bridge yet.”
“The focus right now is to try to make these adjustments and then try to work with the employees that we have — roughly 2,400-2,600 — and find the best ways to keep people on the job, keep them working and make sure that they get a paycheck and keep them employed,” he said.
If the ridership situation gets worse over the next two or three months, that might be reviewed.
“If things don't change or the situation gets worse, I think then our board of trustees and our management would have to look at the numbers and reassess," Arky said. "But at this point, there is no plan in place for that, that I'm aware of.”